Monthly Archives: March 2022

South Asian Favourites: Part III, Vegetables Front & Centre

Grainews

March 2022.

I moved to Vancouver from rural Saskatchewan when I turned 18, landing in an Edwardian house with two roommates on the East Side. I’d grown up on my Germanic mother’s honest meat and spuds, but the West Coast was a popular destination for immigrants, and I lucked into a South Asian enclave – shops and restaurants selling gorgeous clothing, fabric, ingredients, and foods. I was a student, money was tight, and I took to the cuisine like I’d been born to it. Part of the attraction was the warm spices – cumin, cloves, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon. Part was the emphasis on vegetable-forward food. I learned to fill my pot with lentils, basmati, and chickpeas, my glass with lhassi, my cup with chai.

The attraction hasn’t faded. I have been fortunate in learning from chefs and cooks who know more than I about the food of this vast subcontinent.

Jyubeen and Mittal Kacha took the long road from Mumbai to Canada, and after a brief foray in Swift Current, now run a small restaurant in Saskatoon called Urban Spice. Equal parts cumin, coriander, and courage brought the couple to Saskatchewan. What Jyubeen wanted was small town life for his wife and kids. “It’s safe. People know each other,” he observes. “We didn’t want a big city hustle.”

Jyubeen, who cooked professionally in India and attended cooking school in New Zealand, served stints as a flight services caterer in Mumbai, a Disney Cruiselines waiter, and a hotel supervisor at England’s Heathrow Airport, before arriving in Toronto to polish his food and nutrition skills at George Brown College. He creates elegant and flavourful food; Mittal works front of house.

His lamb korma is a succulent blend of onions, cashews, cream and the trinity of coriander, cumin and mustard seed, its complexity enriched with a double handful of spices (look for it in my previous column!). Palak paneer is rich and nuanced, pureed spinach, onions, and spices mellowed by house-made fresh cheese. Aloo gobi sparkles up cauliflower and potatoes with fresh ginger and cumin; dal tadka is lentils brightened with mustard seeds and curry leaves. Like the Moghul Emperor Akbar’s favourite dish, navratan, made with a mix of nine vegetables and fruits in honour of “nine jewels in the court” (nine wise advisors), this cuisine is polished. First we eat, then we move on to Southeast Asia.

Palak Paneer

Jyubeen’s version can be made with palak (spinach), mustard greens, amaranth, chard, or other greens. The creamy paneer is spooned into the spinach mixture at the last minute, where it melts into the sauce. Serve with basmati rice. Serves 4.

paneer:

3 cups milk

1 cup whipping cream

6 lemons, juice only

onion sauce:

2 Tbsp. butter, vegetable oil, or ghee

1 tsp. cumin seed

1 tsp. mustard seed

2 bay leaves

2 onions, minced

4 cups (2 – 3 large bunches) fresh spinach leaves or chard, stalks cut out and chopped, leaves reserved

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root

salt to taste

½ tsp (2 mL) turmeric

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. mild paprika or chili powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp. garam masala

the juice of 1 lemon

spearmint and cilantro leaves for garnish

To make the paneer, bring milk and cream to a full boil. Add lemon juice and let stand for ten minutes. Place a sieve above a large bowl and line the sieve with a clean kitchen cloth or several layers of cheesecloth. Pour the mixture through the sieve, discard the whey and transfer the full sieve sitting on the emptied bowl to the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

To make the sauce, heat the butter, oil, or ghee in a sauté pan and add the cumin, mustard and bay when the pan is hot. Cook for a minute over medium-high heat, then add the onion.  If using chard, cut out the stalks, chop up, reserving the leaves. Add stalks to the pan. Sauté for five to ten minutes. When they soften and begin to colour, season sparingly with salt.

Add the garlic and ginger, turmeric, coriander, paprika or chili powder and tomatoes. Reduce the heat, mix well, stir in a little water to prevent sticking, and add the garam masala. Cook on medium-high heat until tomatoes soften and sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. Add a little water to thin to sauce consistency and puree using an immersion wand or food processor. Keep warm.

Wash the greens leaves, drain but do not spin dry, then puree in a food processor with just the water that clings to the leaves.  Add the puree to the onion sauce, bring to a boil and adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Take the paneer from the fridge and use two teaspoons to scoop it into the sauce. Heat through, stirring very gently. Serve garnished with spearmint

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South Asian Favourites: Part II, Learning to Love Lamb

Grainews

March 2022.

My Saskatchewan-raised mom never served lamb while I was growing up.  She hadn’t eaten it as a child or young woman, and as a result, I didn’t learn to love lamb until I was in my thirties and living in Calgary. Sheep have been a presence in Alberta since the late 1800’s, when thousands of black-faced Merinos were herded north from Montana to Cochrane. The woolly newcomers proved hardy and adaptable to the Alberta climate. In fact, sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers had regular disagreements about grazing rights; the cattle ranchers claimed that sheep grazed the grass too closely to the soil, leaving nothing for other animals. In other parts of the world, sheep were frequently sent to graze in forests as a natural fire preventative. But in Alberta, the legislature of the time enacted a controversial bill that limited sheep grazing in Alberta, prohibiting the animals from the southern international border to as far north as the Bow River in 1884.

Nowadays, dozens of breeds of sheep graze Alberta’s hills and flatlands from Peace River to Pincher Creek, and to a lesser extent across the rest of western Canada, including several breeds of “hair” sheep. These breeds, including Barbados Black-bellied, Dorper, and Katahdin, are lanolin-free. Lanolin is what gives lamb and mutton its characteristic taste and aroma, and without wool or lanolin, the meat is noticeably milder.

My family and I are not alone in our lamb love affair. Lamb consumption in Canada is on the rise, reflecting the changing nature of Canada and a growing population of new arrivals arriving from many regions that have an ensconced tradition of lamb consumption. This gives cooks a wide window of how to season lamb: the classic dictum of “What grows together goes together” is a good guide. Rosemary, lavender, thyme, and oregano flourish on southern European hillsides, where lamb is prized, so use any or all. Mediterranean cuisines from both sides of the sea feature lamb: Greek lamb is simply rubbed and roasted with lemon, oregano, olive oil and garlic; North African lamb tagine can be spiked with dried apricots and cumin. Olive tapenade or garlic aioli with smoked paprika are delicious with rosemary-scented lamb burgers. Spices, coconut milk and makrut (kaffir) lime leaves, or cumin, coriander, turmeric, and the other warm spices of the curry palette reflect lamb’s presence in the diets of the Middle and Far East.

To find locally-raised lamb, read the menu at your favourite restaurant and ask who supplies the kitchen, visit independent butchers or farmers’ markets, and browse the internet using key words like “local lamb” and your province’s name. When possible, order direct from the producer. First we eat, then we discuss what to serve with lamb.

Lamb Korma

Mumbai-born chef Jyubeen Kacha adds ground cashews as a thickening agent that adds mouthfeel to this lush braise. If you are not a lamb fan, substitute turkey legs or chicken thighs. Like most braises, this dish reheats well. Serve with basmati rice and naan. Serves 6.

2 Tbsp. butter, vegetable oil or ghee

1 tsp. cumin seed

1 tsp. mustard seed

2 bay leaves

kosher salt to taste

2 onions, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root

½ tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. chili powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp. garam masala

3 cups stock (chicken, beef or vegetable)

3 lb. lamb shoulder, cubed

kosher salt and pepper to taste

½ cup whole-milk yoghurt (optional)

½ cup finely ground cashews (optional)

the juice of 1 lemon

spearmint and cilantro leaves for garnish

Heat the butter, oil or ghee in a sauté pan and add the cumin, mustard and bay. Cook for a minute over medium-high heat, then add the onions. Sauté for five to ten minutes. When they soften and begin to colour, season sparingly with salt.

Add the garlic and ginger with a pinch of salt, turmeric, coriander, chili powder and tomatoes. Reduce the heat, stir in a little water as needed to prevent sticking, and add the garam masala. Cook on medium-high heat until sauce thickens.

Add the stock and meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil. 

Cut a circle of parchment paper the same diameter as the pot and place it snugly directly on top of the liquid and meat, then cover securely. Reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook for 2 hours or until tender.

Remove lid, stir well, and boil briskly to thicken if the sauce is too thin.

Add the optional yoghurt and cashews and reheat gently. Adjust seasoning with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with mint leaves or cilantro as garnish.

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South Asian Favourites: Part I, Pakoras

Grainews

February 2022.

When I told her I thought I was a changeling, my mom laughed out loud. “With those eyes? Those cheeks? That chin? You are the spitting image of your aunt Lila.”

It’s true. In the mirror, I see my family staring back, just as when I look at my sons, I see my dad’s face. There’s no doubt that we are related. I recall taking my youngest son, still a babe in arms, and his brother, then four, out for noodles in our favourite Vietnamese restaurant. A stranger stopped at our booth as we ate our pho. “Your children are your clones,” she said, laughing. “You all three look so alike.”

My sons and I still eat pho together. We have flavours in common too, separated only by the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. My boys lean towards southeast Asian ingredients, while I cook South Asian (Indian) dishes as my go-to.

That makes all three of us culinary changelings. While we like foods in the Euro style, we love cumin, ginger, garlic, coconut milk, mint, lime, coriander, basil. These seasonings are common to the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

One gift I gave this past Christmas was my own garam masala, the personalized spice blend I make to use in Indian dishes. How? Cumin seed, coriander seed, fennel seed, shelled green cardamom pods, peppercorns, mustard seed, anise seed, whole star anise, fenugreek, stick cinnamon, whole cloves and allspice, all dry-roasted and ground, then mixed with sweet paprika, chili powder, and turmeric. But listen up: garam masala is easy to make in bulk, but share it with spice-loving friends, as ground spices go stale more quickly than whole.

In fact, that tip – start with whole spices – is extra-important when making the foods of South Asia. It doesn’t mean that you have to roast and grind spices each time you cook, but if you do make your own garam masala instead of using commercial curry powders or spice blends, your food will have so much more flavour!

Masala means spice mixture. It applies to chai, or tea. Chai masala is the perfect conclusion to an Indian meal, although I drink it beforehand too. This blend of black tea steeped with milk and whole spices – cinnamon sticks, cracked green cardamom pods, cloves, nutmeg, star anise – can season panna cotta, ice cream or crème caramel, or it can be ground, with or without the tea, for use in cheesecakes and spice cakes, poaching liquids and beverages, tarts and cookies.

The next few columns will serve some favourite South Asian dishes, starting with a vegetarian appetizer that we have been known to eat for supper all on its own. Pakoras are fritters served with chutney. Once you make pakoras at home, you will have an indelible benchmark of quality to evaluate any you eat at restaurants. First we eat fritters, then we discuss spices.

Vegetable Pakoras with Mint Chutney

Bound with chickpea flour and buttermilk (or coconut milk if you are vegan), the vegetables in pakoras can vary: some restaurants use mostly potato, an inexpensive choice, to which I add cauli and carrots, peppers, zucchini, and sometimes cooked and chopped chickpeas. Makes many.

3 cups chickpea flour                                                           

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced, optional

1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint or cilantro                               

salt to taste

1 Tbsp. homemade garam masala or curry powder

1 Tbsp. olive oil                                                        

½ tsp. lemon juice                                                                

2 cups             buttermilk, more as needed

3 large potatoes, julienned

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 zucchini, shredded

1 bell pepper, cut in strips

½ cauliflower, small florets

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root                                     

vegetable oil for pan-frying

Mint or Cilantro Chutney

Stir together the dry ingredients, then add the liquids. The batter should be fairly loose. Add the vegetables and seasonings. Mix only until blended.

Pour oil to a depth of ½” into a wide, shallow heavy-bottomed pan. Heat to 350F. Check for heat by carefully splashing a few drops of water into the oil: when it sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough. Set a paper-lined tray close by.

Using a pair of spoons, drop spoonfuls of batter carefully into the hot fat from as close to the surface as possible to avoid splashing. Do not overcrowd the pan; a single layer, with room between the fritters, is ideal to maintain an even temperature. Use spring-loaded tongs to turn each fritter once as it becomes golden. Cook on second side, then remove to the tray. Serve hot with dip.

Fresh Mint or Cilantro Chutney

Serve with pakoras, curry, seafood and lamb dishes. Makes about 2 cups.

1 cup packed cilantro or mint leaves, stalks discarded

4 green onions

½ cup flatleaf parsley

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped, or hot chili paste to taste

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 slices ginger root

¼ cup lemon juice

1 tsp. garam masala

3 Tbsp. sugar

salt to taste

½ -1 cup water or orange juice

Puree solids in food processor, then add liquid.

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